Back in the 1850s, the red sandstone Smithsonian Castle was home to the Institution’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, as well as a group of rowdy young scientists. The mysterious Alaska death of one of those residents, Robert Kennicott, is the first of many stories chronicled in the new season of Sidedoor, the behind-the-scenes Smithsonian podcast that returns for a second season on June 21.
Sidedoor’s first season, which can be heard on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, the podcast’s official website, or wherever you get your podcasts, debuted last October. In that season’s eight episodes, host Tony Cohn uses a Smithsonian “lens” to explore themes such as masters of disguise and evolving views of technology. Sometimes this involved speaking with a panda conservation expert; other times it included a tour of stand-up comedian Phyllis Diller’s joke files.
Within a week of its premiere, Sidedoor had secured a place on iTunes’ top ten podcasts chart. It was also one of the Atlantic’s top 50 podcasts of 2016, and to-date has received more than 450,000 listens.
Sidedoor’s second season will continue to explore little-known aspects of the Smithsonian, with episodes focusing on a singular in-depth story rather than three shorter segments. Justin O’Neill, the podcast’s producer, says this approach allows the team to share thoroughly reported, detail-oriented stories. Episodes will be longer, and will be released every-other-Wednesday. Also new this season, PRX, the distributor of hit podcasts like The Moth Radio Hour and 99 Percent Invisible, has come on board as the distributor of Sidedoor.
Sidedoor’s season opener, for example, revolves around Kennicott, the Smithsonian scientist who recorded the intricacies of animal specimens in the Castle’s research facilities. At night, he and several other young scientists––who called themselves the Megatherium Club in honor of an extinct giant sloth––retreated to their living quarters for an assortment of bacchanalian exploits.
After a few rounds of ale, or perhaps a game of tag, Kennicott and his friends sometimes visited and serenaded the Castle’s other residents: Secretary Joseph Henry and his three daughters. In the fall of 1865, Western Union sent Kennicott on an expedition to explore what were then the uncharted lands of Russian-held Alaska. By the following May, Kennicott would be dead at just 30 years old.
His body was found on the banks of the Yukon River with no obvious cause of death; the vial of strychnine he usually carried was missing. At the time, friends and the public assumed the scientist had used strychnine to commit suicide, but Kennicott’s family didn’t believe this explanation. Nearly 150 years later, in 2001, Kennicott’s descendants enlisted the Smithsonian’s help to find the definitive cause of death.
Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide, two of the National Museum of Natural History’s forensic anthropologists, took on the task of analyzing Kennicott’s remains. Tony Cohn, the host of Sidedoor, spoke with the scientists about what they discovered, including that Kennicott’s cast iron coffin had “perfectly preserved his skeleton, even some of his tissue and hair.”
To hear what actually happened to Kennicott, listen to the first episode, but for Owsley, work like the Kennicott autopsy is rewarding. “We can provide details about individuals for which there is no written record,” he says in the podcast. “And that's very that's very satisfying when you look at it in terms of just asking the question, Who are you? Who are you and what was your life like?”
Today, Kennicott no longer inhabits his original Castle quarters, nor his Illinois grave, but rests in the National Museum of Natural History’s “Objects of Wonder” exhibition.
The majority of Sidedoor’s second season won’t be as macabre as its opening episode. One upcoming show features Theresa McCulla, the National Museum of American History’s new brewing historian. She leads the American Brewing History Initiative, a project dedicated to recording the history of beer and brewing, particularly homebrewing and craft brewing.
McCulla sees food, drink and the material culture surrounding consumption as starting points for the discussion of serious topics like race and gender.
She adds, “Beer has been present on the continent since before the nation was founded, and if you want to look at any era of history, any theme, you can always do so through the lens of beer.”
McCulla hopes that the podcast “prompts people to pause and think about the history behind something as seemingly mundane as what they might drink for their daily happy hour.”
Cohn shares McCulla’s sentiment, citing an upcoming episode about ordinary moments in times of conflict, as captured by the photographers and artists in the National Portrait Gallery’s Face of Battle exhibit. O’Neill is looking forward to sharing the story of Dr. Walter Adey, a Smithsonian scientist whose Algal Turf Scrubber helps purify and revitalize the nation’s harbors and waterways.
The Sidedoor team is optimistic about the podcast’s future. Cohn says the collaboration between hundreds of Smithsonian employees––from the podcast’s social media team to the curators and researchers interviewed––shows that “not only do we have these Smithsonian stories, but the podcast has proven itself to be a really positive way to tell those stories, and there’s an appetite for that.”